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In defence of the word “journalism”

Citizen journalist is a term which has appeal, especially if you feel giant corporations are acting in their own interests rather than those of the readers. But it also conjures-up images of a press of people surrounding Canada Tower holding up camera phones and Blackberries while others bring up the tumbrils (actually convertible Smart cars).

Inside the tower journalists at the Telegraph and Mirror prepare to leap from windows rather than fall into the hands of the mob, as the citizens threaten to storm the media media stronghold.

The discourse on journalism in the internet age is significantly framed in the language of the Tom Payne, the French Revolution and the American constitution and its first amendment. Dan Gillmor’s We the Media starts with “From Tom Payne to Blogs and Beyond”. He writes:

Personal journalism is also not a new invention. People have been stirring the pot since before the nation’s founding; one of the most prominent in America’s early history was Ben Franklin, whose Pennsylvania Gazette was civic-minded and occasionally controversial.

There were also the pamphleteers who, before the First Amendment was enshrined into law and guaranteed a free press, published their writings at great personal risk. Few Americans can appreciate this today, but journalists are still dying elsewhere in the world for what they write and broadcast.

One early pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, inspired many with his powerful writings about rebellion, liberty, and government in the late 18th century. He was not the first to take pen to paper in hopes of pointing out what he called common sense, nor in trying to persuade people of the common sense of his ideas. Even more important, perhaps, were the (at the time) anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers. Their work, analyzing the proposed Constitution and arguing the fundamental questions of how the new Republic might work, has reverberated through history. Without them, the Constitution might never have been approved by the states. The Federalist Papers were essentially a powerful conversation that helped make a nation.

Gillmor is very careful with the use of the phrase “citizen journalist” and recognises the issue of who is a journalist:

I’d like to see news organizations encourage “citizenreporting” by people who want to cover some broadly defined aspect of community life. This is not a simple process. The legal and even cultural questions are enormous; not least are how to deal with accreditation (who’s a journalist, anyway?) and libel (who’s responsible when a citizen reporter wrongly injures someone’s reputation?). Still, the advantages outweigh the risks. Let me suggest some ways it might work. Maybe we could create OhmyNews-like add-ons to our sites. If that’s too much extra effort, we could offer members of the community their own weblogs. We’d be the host.

We the Media is one of the most important books about the development of news in the internet age. It is full of well considered thought and is essential reading for all journalists. Where I disagree is with his acceptance of blogs and their like as journalism.

I may call myself a journalist, but when I am writing a blog I am not doing journalism. If it was it would be much improved by editing or simply rejected by an editor who saw no merit in it. I might be annoyed, but that is journalism.

George Bernard Shaw put it elegantly in Everybody’s Political What’s What:

Journalism, being a social activity, civilizes them [authors]; but the romancers who sit alone and arrange the world out of their own heads, uncontradicted and unedited, never, unless they have a strong sense of humor, learn how to live in political society, and have to be indulged by statesmen as visitors from another world.

One of the difficulties in this debate is the way in which some enthusiasts for “citizen journalism” subvert the discussion. For example, the following is part of the Wikipedea article on Citizen journalism:

In a 2003 Online Journalism Review article, J. D. Lasica defines Citizen Journalism as having the following characteristics: 1) Audience participation (such as user comments attached to news stories, personal blogs, photos or video footage captured from personal mobile cameras, or local news written by residents of a community), 2) Independent news and information Websites (Consumer Reports, the Drudge Report), 3) Full-fledged participatory news sites (OhMyNews), 4) Collaborative and contributory media sites (Slashdot, Kuro5hin), 5) Other kinds of “thin media.” (mailing lists, email newsletters), and 6) Personal broadcasting sites (video broadcast sites such as (KenRadio).

The whole paragraph is based on a misrepresentation. Lasica does not use the phrase “citizen journalism” at all. The nearest he comes to it is in this sentence: “When citizens contribute photos, video and news updates to mainstream news outlets, many would argue they’re doing journalism.”

“Citizen journalism” is not, as the Wikipedia article suggests interchangable with Lasica’s phrase, “participatory journalism”. That is not far from the “networked journalism” Jeff Jarvis recently suggested as a better term “for what I’ve been calling ‘citizen journalism’.” I don’t like either because journalism has always been participatory and dependent on networks.

I responded to Jarvis saying that I would stick with “citizen journalism”. On second thoughts, my real objection is to calling bloggers and people who supply camera phone pictures journalists.

Andrew Cline, who takes the opposite view, recently wrote on Rhetorica of…

a concept of journalism about which I have become increasingly skeptical: For a practice to be called journalism it must include an editing process by people other than reporters.

The problem I have with this is: It cuts out everyone but those the business institution of journalism sanctions as practitioners. Further, this sanctioning allows governmental organizations to practice de facto licensing of journalism, e.g. those who get to cover the local police are those who have a press credential from a local news organization.

In the UK at least local news organisations don’t issue press credentials that entitle reporters to get information from the police. Occassionally, the police or a council will withdraw access from a reporter but sense is usually seen after a few thunderous leaders. It is only if people calling themselves “citizen journalists” tried to attend a youth court, for example, that we could get to the situation Cline imagines.

His is a libertarian position which appears to suggest equality. That is not what history tells us. Every revolution (including the current one in communications) throws up ideas of equality and the rights of citizens but they are quickly compromised and lead, all too often, to authoritarianism.

One of the leaders of the French Revolution, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, established the concept of active and passive citizens. The formation of public powers was in the hands of the active citizens alone. J L Talmon, in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, wrote:

They [active citizens] alone are “le vrais actionnaires de la grande entreprise sociale”. The term is highly significant. Society is reinterpreted from a moral and political arrangement based on the natural rights of man into a joint stock company.

Let those who propose a utopian dream of information and involvement remember this. In the meantime, let us get on with the conversation with readers that Gillmor advocates. It will be easier if the meaning of words does not evolve faster than the debate.

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